From the President’s Desk
A quarterly letter to our readers from IWU President Eric Jensen
(From IWU Magazine, SPRING 2017)
Greetings from a campus coming to full springtime life. The John Wesley Powell Student
Research Conference, with 85 presenting students, has come and gone, honor societies
have inducted new members, and flowers are blooming. More to the point, Commencement
is coming into sharp focus. It’s such a great day for everyone involved — a bit of
pageantry creating memories that graduates and their families can carry with them
forever. Faculty and staff love it almost as much. That said, it’s a long day, after
which everyone involved sleeps well.
As I write this, I am in Williamsburg, Virginia, as part of a conference on “Higher
Education and Social Mobility.” A part of what we will talk about is the ways in which
colleges and students are matched. It’s not always a pretty story. For example, nearly
three-quarters of students at the most selective schools came from the highest-income
quintile, while only 4% came from the poorest fifth. If, as we hope, a college education
is a path forward for those less advantaged at birth, these numbers suggest that the
path does not run through the top schools.
Graduation rates also fall with declines in socioeconomic status. There are many reasons
for this. Where family resources are scarce, access to credit is difficult, and the
lost income while one is a student can be significant. It is also likely that poorer
students go to schools with significant resource constraints. The resulting large
class sizes and generally impersonal nature at some institutions no doubt contribute
to longer times until completion and lower graduation rates.
This frames the dilemma that we face at Illinois Wesleyan, and indeed one we have
faced for a long time. Relatively few of our students have come from advantaged backgrounds,
reflecting our strong sense of mission. We have made, and will continue to make, transformative
differences in the lives of our graduates. Thus we serve in many ways as the counterexample
to the kind of problems we’re talking about at the conference. We serve a significant
and increasing share of lower socioeconomic status students, and in so doing provide
truly life-changing experiences. At the same time, we need to support our institution.
We can do that, in part, by asking those students who can pay more to do so, giving
them in exchange an increasingly distinctive educational experience. But that will
not be enough. We will succeed because of the support of those who know firsthand
what Illinois Wesleyan means in their lives. Thank you, in your support of current
and future students, for passing it forward.